The four rules of improv and how they relate to your career

The concepts of active listening, creative thinking and professional confidence should be constant areas of focus when it comes to progressing as communications professionals. Of course growing, and internalizing, these skills is easier said than done. Where does one start?

To answer that question, we looked to the world of improv comedy. It may sound surprising on the surface, but mindfully applying some basic standards of improv to your day-to-day life can help develop the skills that can help improve many aspects of your career and development. They teach you how to make something out of nothing, refine critical communication soft skills and help focus your perspective on positivity and growth.

According to Tina Fey’s 2011 autobiography, “Bossypants," there are four rules to follow for properly performing the art of improvisational theatre, or improv. They are:

 1. Always say yes
 2. Not only say yes, but yes and
 3. Make statement
 4. Mistakes equal opportunities

Read on to see how we’ve loosely applied these rules to our workplace and personal development. 

First, agree
The first rule of improv is simple. When you’re on stage, saying yes to a scene and thereby agreeing to fully participate, is of the upmost importance. Working on teams to complete projects, brainstorm ideas and ultimately develop a healthy workplace requires an open-mindedness where everyone’s contributions and insights matter – where ideas are heard and considered by all.

Saying yes can also apply to professional development opportunities and new work assignments. Approaching these with an eagerness to learn, and with a positive, creative outlook, gives us all the best chance to work through new situations or tasks with a clear mind. 

Agree, then add
In improv, this rule means to add something of your own. For example, if someone says, “Man, I wish we had more coffee,” and you simply say, “yeah,” the scene is all but over. But, if you agree, then say, “Me too, but coffee was banned today due to that new study,” now you have the makings of an improv scene. 

In work we apply this by encouraging all to contribute to the conversation. Whether you’re in a staff meeting or on a call with clients, it’s important to not only share, but have the confidence to share, what you have to say with your team. 

Important: As communicators, we should always be striving to practice active listening. This rule especially requires these skills. You can’t successfully bring something new to a conversation, improv or otherwise, if you aren’t totally invested in the conversation at hand. If you’re thinking of your next response, or half-listening while replying to an email on your phone, you aren’t totally using active listening skills – and it will show in your response. 

Don’t only ask questions – make statements
When applied to improv, rule number three says that you shouldn’t exclusively ask your partner questions – you, and the scene, won’t get anywhere interesting. Instead, improv actors are asked to add something of substance so the scene doesn’t turn into a question-and-answer segment. 

When applying this rule to work, we first are quick to disregard the first part – you should always ask questions in the workplace. That is part of an open, collaborative, culture. But, after that, rule three means using your knowledge and your experience to think critically and make valuable contributions. No matter your title or standing in an organization, a team works best when all of its members are heard, valuable and together actively working toward a common goal. When someone, for any reason, is sitting on the sidelines, a workplace might not be reaching its full potential.

Mistakes create opportunities
During improv, when someone veers the scene onto an unforeseen or unpredictable path, this doesn’t mean they did improv “wrong.” It means their partners need to embrace the pivot and take the scene in a new direction.

Rigid thinking in the workplace can stop a new idea or approach from growing into something beneficial; worse, limiting an open environment could potentially hold people back from contributing to future projects.

And finally, whereas improv doesn’t see mistakes in a traditional sense, we all make them in our lives. Learning from those, internalizing their lessons and moving forward is an integral part of anyone’s growth as both professionals and people.

For further discussion on this topic, listen to episode one of The Branigan Communications Podcast!